Wine Goes Organic

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

The organic wine market has been booming in the US and Europe, and consumers in Asia could well follow this trend and might reach out for a glass or even a bottle of organic wine for their next drink. By Farah Nazurah

Wine has many health benefits when consumed in moderation—it boosts the immune system, contains antioxidants, reduces the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and can even lower cholesterol. APFI was invited by Spain-based Alimentaria Exhibitions to Barcelona and visited the Albet i Noya vineyard to understand how organic wines are produced.

In the fourth and current generation of a family of Catalan winemakers, Josep Maria Albet i Noya, decided to introduce organic farming methods to vineyards spanning 90 hectares in an estate stretching 210 hectares. Mr Albet i Noya took over the management of the estate after his father’s death in 1972 and at the end of the 1970s, started producing his first organic wines. With the success of the first wine he produced specifically for the Danish market, the family gradually moved the entire estate over to its now 100 percent organic farming methods. 

Trendsetting Organic Farming


In 1978, Mr Albet i Noya was on the Farmer’s Union representative on the Spanish regulating council for classifying Spanish wines—Denominación de Origen (Appellation of Origin)—when a Danish company contacted the council in search of an organic producer in the region. At that time, there were no certified organic products in Spain, but the council recommended Mr Albet i Noya because of his personal convictions as a strict vegetarian. He got in touch with the Danish company, and subsequently took a course on biodynamic agriculture.

“We started in 1978, when nobody did it and all people thought we were crazy. Nowadays, fortunately, most of the winemakers are practicing this kind of farming. We are having an organic revolution, right now,” emphasised Mr Albet i Noya.

Despite initial scepticism from the family and local farmers, Mr Albet i Noya decided to try with one of the family vineyards that he himself had replaced and grafted with the Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo) grape vines. The resulting wine sold very well, encouraging him to continue along this path. In the following years he gradually increased the number of vineyards dedicated to organic farming procedures.

Returning To Traditional Agriculture


The benefits of the organic farming methods were apparent, the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilisers that affect the natural growth and ripening of the grapes could be eliminated. This return to methods inherited from traditional agriculture—given that the organic regulations only allow the use of cover crops and organic composts—better maintains the vines’ balance and produces healthier grapes, free of residues that alter the aromatic components of the fruit, their taste and their natural texture.

All of the company’s wines fall under the control of the Catalan Council of Ecological Agricultural Production, which is a public watchdog responsible to the Ministry of Agriculture of the Catalan government. The organisation undertakes regular inspections and certifies that the terms of the European Regulation 2092/91 on organic produce are adhered to.

“To prevent diseases or plagues like mildew or oidium, we are still using copper and sulphur but the quantity we use is really small compared with non-organic wines,” explained Mr Albet i Noya.

The quality of an organic wine (even more so than for a non-organic wine) starts in the vineyards. The principal characteristics of organically grown grapes are the lack of chemical residues and ideal sanitary conditions. Coupled with low yields in the vineyards, the quality of the grapes is not only improved but the vines also get naturally more resistant to plagues. Organic regulations therefore prohibit any kind of treatments with synthetic products such as herbicides, pesticides, or fertilisers. 

Bringing Ancient Grapes Back To Life


Josep Maria Albet i Noya

In 1998, Mr Albet i Noya started an ambitious project to recover a few ‘ancient’ grape varieties. The aim of the project was to test seven ancient grape varieties, both from a point of view of vineyard measurement and of winemaking potential. The grape varieties have been recovered from old and abandoned vineyard, including one found in his estate.

The seven varieties selected include four whites and three reds. Five hundred vines of each were grafted, 250 with vigorous woodstock and the other half with a less vigorous strain. This is to pick and vinify each strain separately. To date, the company has completed the first phase of the project with two white varieties and one red, and these show good wine quality and farming potential. 

Stronger Grape Varieties, Going Green and Sustainable


In 2012, the company started an experimental project to create fungus-resistant strains of autochthonous grape varieties adapted to climate change. They are currently cross breeding interspecies using local grape varieties, and are hoping to achieve versions that have natural resistance to plagues like mildew and oidium, and that ripen later in the season.

Working with these varieties will enable the company to significantly reduce the use of products like copper and sulphur in the vineyards and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and are hoping to have the first results of this project around 2025. 

Growing Wine Culture In Asia


While Asians are known to enjoy tea drinking, there is an unmistakable expanding culture of wine appreciation in the region’s developed economies. The Chinese grape wine market was worth an estimated US$38.3 billion in 2015, and is expected to increase by a significant 81 percent, reaching and anticipated US$69.3 billion by 2019, according to the Agriculture and Agri-Food board in Canada.

What are Mr Albet i Noya’s thoughts on the Asian wine market? “From our point of view, Asia is a hotspot for selling our wines. So, we have started to build commercial relationships with some Asian countries as we think the interest for organic wines will keep on growing and we could be situated in an advantageous position,” he concluded.